In this weekly column “Cross-exam,” Elie Honig, a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor, gives his take on the latest legal news. Post your questions below. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN. Watch Honig answer reader questions on “CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera” at 5:40 p.m. ET Sundays.
(CNN)The intelligence community whistleblower complaint released publicly on Thursday ratchets up the pressure on President Donald Trump and his inner circle, as the Ukraine scandal explodes at a dizzying pace.
Elie HonigOn the heels of Wednesday’s release of an official summary of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the complaint gives us two major takeaways — both making impeachment more likely. First, every scandal needs a coverup, and now the Ukraine case has its very own. We learned that White House lawyers allegedly instructed other staffers to store records of the damning July 25 phone call on a server normally reserved for extremely sensitive classified information. Records of the Trump-Zelensky phone call ordinarily would have no business on such a server; according to the complaint, storage on the classified server was “an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”Read More Have questions on impeachment? Share them below, and we’ll answer as many as we can. As the whistleblower notes, the intent was to “lock down” evidence of the conversation. This move shows us that Trump’s closest advisers recognized quickly that the call posed a major problem and bucked normal protocol to try to hide it. Lawyers call this “consciousness of guilt” — meaning that when people try to hide evidence or influence witnesses or otherwise obstruct justice, they typically do so for a reason. This kind of proof can be devastating in court (or, in this case, eventually in the House and later the Senate). The second big revelation is that Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was so centrally involved in Trump’s effort to push the Ukrainian government to dig for dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Giuliani already has spoken publicly (and inconsistently) about his efforts to mine political dirt on Trump’s political rivals, and the whistleblower complaint similarly casts him as a “central figure” in the illicit undertaking. The Greeks had a name for what could bring down TrumpGiuliani’s involvement in Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine gather dirt on political opponents is itself a major problem for Trump: why on earth was Giuliani — a private citizen and not an employee of the US government — involved in any of this at all? The answer, it seems, is that Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were intended for his own personal and political benefit and not for (or perhaps at the expense of) the best interests of the United States. Trump has already gone on the offensive, attacking the whistleblower’s credibility (while also allegedly implying, outrageously, that whoever provided the whistleblower information was “close to a spy” who should be punished — treading and likely crossing the line of criminal witness tampering). But Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower’s credibility simply don’t fly. Trump’s own appointed intelligence community inspector general formally deemed the whistleblower complaint credible. And the whistleblower in the complaint somehow managed to give a spot-on description of Trump’s pivotal July 25 phone call. Trial lawyers call this corroboration — meaning the witness is backed up by some reliable, outside evidence. Get our weekly newsletter
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The House Intelligence Committee has a daunting and complex investigative task ahead of it. And the whistleblower complaint serves as a helpful roadmap. Speak with every relevant person referenced in the complaint. Subpoena any emails or texts relating to the effort to bury documents. Interview (and subpoena if necessary) State Department officials who may (or may not) have authorized Giuliani to conduct official business on behalf of the United States. The evidence is piling up. Trump and his defenders are going into battle mode. We learned on Thursday that one of their primary targets for counterattack, the whistleblower, will not be easily dismissed or discredited.